Samuel Taylor Coleridge plays League of Legends
Being the manipulator of time that I am, and having enjoyed my gaming session with Calvin on the weekend [find that post here], I decided to invite Samuel Taylor Coleridge (co-founder of English Romanticism, and ardent poet, philosopher, theologian, and more) to the present. I caught up with STC over a game of League of Legends.
Me: So, Coleridge—it feels weird to call you by your first name; I hope Coleridge is okay?
STC: My name is simply a symbol that represents my metaphysical createdness in the image of the divine I AM for whom no name—except for BEING itself—is adequate.
Me: Okay… so, Coleridge, I think that you would have some interesting things to say about gaming.
STC: Certainly. I will never forget the way that my imagination was engaged when I first read Virgil when I was 10… many great games followed as I imagined myself a Grecian fighting in Virgil’s wars…
Me: Yes, I uh, love Virgil too…
STC: Especially in the original Latin, wouldn’t you say?
Me: To be honest, Coleridge, Latin isn’t quite what it used to be.
STC: But it’s a dead language; are you telling me it has changed?
Me: No, I’m just saying we don’t teach it to 10 year olds anymore… or to much of anyone for that matter.
STC: Abominable! That is an eternal act of symbolic transgression aimed against the finite nature of…
Me: On another note… I wanted you to play this game with me.
STC: Ah yes. This League of Legends as you call it.
Me: Now, I’ll just login here… [I move through the login screen and go to character selection] …now, the first thing you need to do is select a champion.
STC: [his eyes grow large and a strange, childish look of terror fills his eyes. After a moment he composes himself and selects Morgana].
Me: Are you alright?
STC: Could I have some laudanum please?
Me: Umm… how about a beer?
STC: That will do.
[The gaming ensues and STC soon proves a LoL shark. He grasps the rules intuitively and soon achieves his first “penta-kill”—an elusive honour of defeating five successive foes without falling once oneself. After the game he sits back in his chair, revealing shaking hands.]
Me: Are you alright Coleridge? Can I get you something?
STC: Some laudanum maybe?
Me: To be honest, laudanum has kind of gone the way of Latin…
Me: Yeah, well, today people frown on mixing opium with alcohol almost as much as teaching Latin to 10 year olds.
STC: I lived through the Reign of Terror and the rise of Napoleon; neither prepared me for this.
Me: How about another game?
STC: No, I think, I am finished with that game.
Me: But you are a natural! You’re a noob and you could already give NyJacky [a pro player known for using Morgana] a run for his money!
STC: An experience like that is not to be taken lightly. For years I had nightmares of a beautiful, evil woman… [his gaze goes distant and his voice trails off]. I just experienced what it is to master the nightmare woman… I will not “play” Morgana again.
Me: But surely, another champion? With you skill, your could do well in the pro leagues.
STC: For the last hour you transported me into the existence of another being. Her life is now a part of my identity, my being. Such an experience is not to be taken lightly.
Me: But think of the money!
STC: There is ONE in whom I will live and move and have my being. To occasionally step into the lives of others through a book, a poem, or even a game is one thing. To do so habitually as though it were a liturgy of one’s life—that is to cross the very boundary of being. I am not saying it is bad, but it is powerful. It is something to be done thoughtfully.
[Coleridge refused to play anymore. Once he realized that I was not joking about laudanum—and learned that postmodern poetry had rejected rhyme and meter in poetry—he decided it was best he return to the 1830s.]
Why does this matter?
In last week’s post I indentified many of the practices of League of Legends matches (and online gaming in general) with religious liturgical practice. I argued that one reason why these similarities matter is because it shows us that humans are religious beings and that everything we do is religious. Today I want to point out a second reason why gaming as liturgy matters.
Conclusion B—Liturgy (and Gaming) is Formative
Liturgy has powerful formative potential.
In his book Imagining the Kingdom, James K. A. Smith argues that one of the defining qualities of liturgy is its formative power. He suggests that education (he is particularly concerned with Christian education) has spent too much time focusing on matters of belief and worldview, and not enough on formative practice—i.e., liturgy.
I think he is right.
My three-year old can easily tell you that lying is wrong—we have been over that ethical hurdle—but it does not stop him from throwing his big sister under the bus when I ask him if he is the one scratched a gouge in the kitchen table. Believing something and living it out are two different matters.
Nonetheless, when I ask my son to put his dishes in the dishwasher after supper, he does so without argument. Why? Because it is a matter of ritual in our house—a part of our supper liturgy. This performed practice is ingrained upon his identity.
So, if we are engaging daily in numerous liturgies, all of which have far greater formative potential than any university lecture or pastoral sermon, then it behoves us to ponder the meaning of these liturgies.
Liturgies are repetitive (ritual) tasks, imbued with imaginative (aesthetic) power, that orient our longings. My family’s supper routine has its ritual elements (including the post-dinner clearing of dishes); it is deeply aesthetic (we are eating, smelling, seeing, and enjoying prepared foods); and it orients our longings in a number of ways (my son’s clearing his plate is linked to his longing to function as a member of our family community).
The question I want us to ask as we sit down to play games is “what am I worshipping?” and–this is what struck Coleridge when playing LoL–“how is this practice (this liturgy) shaping my longings?” League of Legends and games like it—particularly MMORPGS like World of Warcraft or Guild Wars 2— tend to orient our worship toward our immediate community (“Wow, dude, your dps is insane!”), or toward ourselves (“I am awesome enough that I deserve to walk around in a virtual world with shoulder pads the size of Cooper Minis —even if it will take me 20+ hours to attain those shoulder pads, and even if I will just want a new pair a week later”).
This self-worship element is a dangerous one—am I inscribing upon myself the practice of work ethic applied to constantly one-upping everyone else?—“crap, Tim has bigger shoulder pads than me, it’s time to go grind another 20+ hours so that I can get even better ones.” If Tim happens to have the same ethic ingrained upon himself a dangerous spiral soon forms.
Jane McGonigal thinks that we could make the world a better place if we could just harness the formative power of video games. She is right. Because of their deeply aesthetic and interactive nature, I believe video games have the potential to be the most powerful formative tools of our age (eg., it is possible that I know more about the flora, fauna, and anthropology of Azeroth—the world of WoW—than I do about my own world).
As our society increasingly finds more and more effective means to form our minds and practices, please remember to question. Ask what is being worshipped in the process of your formation (and whether it is something worthy of worship); ask how the formative liturgies in which you are participating are shaping your longings (are they creating a deeper desire for what matters, or do they make you more banal?).
Everything is religious. All of us worship. Liturgy is ubiquitous. We cannot escape these things, but we can question them. We can choose what religion we will partake of, who/what we will worship, and how our liturgy will shape us.
McGonigal, Jane. Gaming Can Make a Better World. TED.com. Feb., 2010.
Smith, James K. A. Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works (Cultural Liturgies). Baker Academic, 2013.